on Monday, Aug. 1st

There’s a moment of clarity that comes in every super hero fan’s life: It is when they realize they weren’t rocketed to Earth from a dying world of super-science, or born to billionaire parents who were gunned down in front of them. No radioactive spider is going to bite them and endow them with the proportional strength and agility of an arachnid. In short: it is the moment when they realize they will never be a super hero.

So the fan leaves the dream behind. Some leave comics behind. Others concentrate on collecting the adventures, or even writing them.

At least that’s how the story used to end.

In the past decade, things have changed, and in HBO’s new documentary SUPERHEROES we meet the men and women who made a different choice: to put on the mask, capes, tights, and fight back against what they see as the evils of the world.

Alternately hilarious, deeply depressing, and totally inspiring, documentarians Michael Barnett and Theodore James spent a year traveling the continental U.S. and Canada, ingratiating themselves with the emerging “Real Life Superhero” community. The doc focuses on a few stories: the tragicomic tales of San Diego’s Mr. Xtreme and Orlando’s Master Legend (himself the subject of a Rolling Stone article a few years back that set the gold standard for reporting on the phenomenon); and the darker, all too serious story of Zimmer and the New York Initiative — a four person team that uses bait-tactics in an attempt to lure muggers out of the shadows.

Along the way we meet nearly a dozen other would-be crime fighters. Some patrol the roughest parts of their neighborhoods, others offer care packages to the homeless. All are driven by a sense that the world could be better than it is if people were to stand up for each other. The story of Kitty Genovese, the New York woman who was raped and murdered in 1966, is totemic with more than one of the real life superheroes. Genovese’s murder was a tragedy that became elevated to the status of urban legend that had 38 of her neighbors bearing witness to her assault and failing to help. While the historical record reveals the distortion of the tale, the story has become the perfect encapsulation of the apathy that the would-be heroes find is their primary adversary.

The documentary calls upon a San Diego police detective to serve as an expert witness on the legal issues raised by the vigilantes. Yet, the focus of the documentary is less about the social impact of the trend, and more on the psychology of the men and women who are part of the growing movement. A character like Mr. Xtreme is, for whatever reason, stuck inside an adolescent mindset despite being 32 years of age; the members of the New York Initiative seem driven by darker impulses. These are young men and women who are battling their inner demons and the sense of injustice they perceive head on.

There is something deeply unsettling about both stories, which sit at the polar opposite ends of the community’s continuum. That sense comes in part from the masterful storytelling of director Michael Barnett, who plumbs the stories of his subjects with an empathetic eye.

Whether you are a fan of comic books, fringe culture, or tales of aberrant psychology, SUPERHEROES has something on tap for all but the most jaded consumers of the odd and awesome. This is a fun documentary that points towards some of the bigger questions laying underneath our civil society.

SUPERHEROES– A documentary film by Michael Barnett, directed by Barnett and produced by Theodore James. World premiere broadcast on HBO, Aug 8, 2011, 9PM ET/PT.


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